SANTA NELLA -- Luigina Cowie met her husband on a blind date in Italy half a century ago. On Sunday, she sat in front of his grave at the San Joaquin National Cemetery and told him that she hasn't forgotten him.
Since his death three years ago, Cowie, 75, has visited her husband's grave about once a month. Neil Cowie served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He's one of about 30,000 veterans buried at the cemetery, tucked in the foothills of western Merced County.
Sunday was the first time Cowie attended the cemetery's Memorial Day ceremony. She left impressed. Bagpipers played "Amazing Grace," Patriot Guard riders rumbled up on Harleys bearing 4-foot American flags and a Marine Corps honor guard fired a rifle salute.
"We need to put the memorial back in Memorial Day," cemetery director Ralph Bennett told the audience of about 300. "In this shared remembrance, we connect as Americans."
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Two mothers who lost sons in Iraq laid a commemorative wreath.
"I liked the way they talked about the sacrifice the soldiers made," Cowie said. "If God gives me health, I'll be here (next year)."
Cowie sat alone on a red lawn chair during the ceremony, the balloon and flowers she brought for her husband's grave at her side.
After the last song was sung, Cowie stood up. With slow steps, she walked almost a mile to a far corner of the cemetery, carrying her chair and decorations.
Neil Cowie is buried at the edge of the 300-acre cemetery, where green sod ends and golden hills begin. Cowie knelt on her husband's marker, pushing a red, white and blue plastic bouquet as far as she could into the dirt. A persistent wind whipped through the grounds, snapping flags and rustling trees.
Then Cowie sat in her lawn chair and faced her husband's grave. She said she likes to spend time here by herself. She talks to her husband about how their four children are doing. Etched on his marker are the words, "Big hearted man who loved his family."
The couple met when Luigina was 21, living in the small town of Sacile, Italy. Neil Cowie was stationed at a nearby Air Force base. She didn't like him at first, she said, but he kept coming around and he grew on her.
Luigina's legs had been injured during the war, and she thought she would never get married because of the scars. She told him, "You don't want to marry me. I'm a cripple." A young Neil Cowie replied, "I'm not marrying your legs."
That's when she knew it wasn't just a fling for him, Luigina remembered Sunday.
They were married 50 years.
"We had a good life, I can't complain too much," Cowie said.
Toward the end of his life, the couple talked about how he would like to be buried. Cowie was against a military funeral. She didn't like the sound of guns. They reminded her of German bombings during the war, she said.
"But don't you think I deserve it?" Neil Cowie asked his wife.
Yes, she said.
Neil Cowie had joined the Navy at age 17, then served in the Army Air Corps and Air Force. His military career lasted 27 years, eight months and 14 days, Cowie said. He was buried at San Joaquin National Cemetery in January 2006.
"To me, Memorial Day is every day," Cowie said. "You have to come every chance you get, to let him know that I didn't forget him."
Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2378.